The iconic BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in London, popularly known as Neasden Temple, is at the heart of many impactful inititatives for the British Indian community, and beyond.
In this exclusive interview, iGlobal zones into the many women's developmental and outreach programmes the organisation facilitates in conversation with Rena Amin, UK & Europe Head of Outreach and Community Relations of the temple. She is also NHS Associate Director for Southeast London Integrated Care System and Clinical Associate & Managing Partner for Heartland Way Surgery, Surrey. Bhavisha Patel, the Head of the UK & Europe, Children and Young People's Forum of BAPS, and an Assistant Director, Product Analyst – Moody's Analytics, also joined iGlobal for this insightful discussion.
Both British Indian professionals have their roots in Gujarat and, in their own words, were born under the shadow of the Sanstha and can't imagine life outside of it. Here, they reflect upon how grateful they are towards the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha for helping them strike a perfect harmony between selfless service (sewa) and spirituality.
What are some BAPS initiatives geared towards women's empowerment?
Rena Amin: Within the BAPS National Women's Forum, we have always been encouraged to participate in initiatives and whatever the scope is. So, we feel that we are very inclusive and through that inclusivity comes that empowerment.
Bhavisha Patel: We don't necessarily have specific programmes or initiatives focusing on women's empowerment alone. Because women play an integral role in all BAPS activities, and that's under the guidance of His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj, who always has and continues to encourage women to play that integral leadership role.
We have myriad leadership structures, so women play as much of a role in every event and initiative as men. Of course, we do have our celebrations, such as International Women's Day, but generally, I would say it's an ongoing process, and women are integrated into all the main events and initiatives of BAPS.
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How do women positively impact the community outreach work?
Patel: I think personally, for me, having been to some of the BAPS International Women's Day events, I see the types of topics and issues that are addressed - it's amazing. It helps me feel nurtured and able to understand and learn more about these topics across the spectrum and affect women everywhere.
Amin: From my role within Community Outreach, we start by doing some horizon scanning. We would go to a national coordinator for the children's forum, youth forum, the elderly forum at the very onset of big events such as International Women's Day.
We've been doing it for the past 13 years. It's a protected time once a year when women come together, addressing issues they face but in a trusted faith environment with intergenerational families and friends who may be going through similar issues. So, whilst we feel that we cannot bring solutions for every problem, like domestic violence, body image, and mental health - issues that are often brushed under the carpet. But having this protected environment, we explore these realities and solutions to these problems.
We partner with other community organisations that are subject matter experts. I think it is incumbent upon us, and it's also a responsibility for us that whilst we are unable to do all the solutions, the least we can do is raise awareness. Just to name one example, Breast cancer is a massive issue. We are fortunate in this country we have mammography and screening. We reached out to a very well-known charity called Breast Cancer Care. We developed resources that enable women to feel that this is something that we should be doing. It is an intergenerational effort and subtly enables our women.
How would you describe the role of spirituality and sewa in tandem?
Patel: Sewa is really central to the teachings, especially our Guru, Shri Mahant Swami Maharaj, who always highlights the importance of Unity. In the spirit of serving others, sewa, done with Unity, nurtures our spirituality. Sewa and spirituality are intertwined – one doesn't exist without the other.
Amin: Just to expand on that, Neasden Temple has been an integral part of community outreach sewa for several years. We lead numerous projects; for example, we organise annual winter campaigns. Most recently, with the cost-of-living crisis, we partnered and collaborated with The Trussell Trust.
You need to be quite topical and current because our communities are suffering. And what is the point of just going to mandir but not serving your community? So sewa and spirituality for us go hand in hand. We can't imagine one without the other.
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What is your message for the community to get involved with these diverse activities?
Amin: The Mandir has always been open to everyone, irrespective – all the time. Anyone can come to our Mandir. We have a very well-equipped bookstore here and lots of forums and resources. Just come and have some food with us. It's a fun place to be too with good company and brings that little bit of India as well. Our Guru (Mahant Swami Maharaj) always says that the Mandir should not be a place of architectural beauty where people just come and marvel. It should be a living, breathing space for the communities.
Patel: We have so much literature on various topics and languages, as well as the history of BAPS. Anyone can read and learn about it, and we also have weekly assemblies for all age groups. This is beneficial, especially for children who can understand and learn about Indian culture and values and everything good that we want to imbibe in them.
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*Info: Neasden Temple, London